Saturday, November 15, 2014

Beginning in the Middle

"I have been forced to sit in the audience of my son's life, watching a fictional story being played out in front of my eyes.  The reality being that strangers are living my life as my child's mother and grandmother."--Lily Arthur in Adoptionland: From Orphans to Activists

I've been reading a lot online in recent days about National Adoption Month and Orphan Sunday, and I am flooded with reactions and emotions, most of them none too pleasant.  November has been celebrated as National Adoption Month for about a decade and was initially begun as a way to find homes for the thousands of children languishing in foster care, a notoriously unsatisfactory place for a child to grow up.  It was about children and their needs, not advocacy for those wishing to adopt infants and toddlers, but that has changed.  These days "adoption" is all-inclusive and seldom makes a distinction among the various kinds of adoption.

November is also the month when we celebrate our veterans, acknowledge their sacrifice, and honor their service to our country.  We honor our soldiers, but we do not celebrate the wars they fought.  I see parallels between adoption and war.  Perhaps reflecting on a few similarities will help me understand both a bit better.

War is hell.  No one disputes this.  War always involves suffering, violence, chaos, and loss.  When evil becomes too overwhelming to be ignored, then responsible people step up to combat it, even though they know what it will cost.  In other words, sometimes war is
necessary.  The same can be said of adoption.

For some, adoption is hell as well, but it's a hell that is not acknowledged or fully understood.  Every adoption is grounded in tragedy.  There is no adoption without adoption loss.  A mother loses her child.  A father is dismissed as irrelevant.  A child loses his identity and his heritage.  The only winners are the adoptive parents and those children whose fates would have been dangerously compromised had they remained with their original parents.  But those children suffer too.  Whatever the circumstances of a child's adoption, there is pain preceding it, and the pain doesn't end the day the child goes to his new home.

I keep thinking that if I can find the right words to describe adoption loss, the trauma of separation experienced by both mother and baby, and the near-impossibility of ever being rid of the unique pain felt by adoptees and their mothers, I will be able to convert what is inchoate into something clear and manageable, but that's not happening.  Is it pessimistic to believe that life is one long string of hurts, strung along between good times but always present, the way scars are omnipresent?   You can slap makeup on a scar or hide it beneath a shirt, but without serious medical intervention you can't get rid of it, yet we live despite our scars, both emotional and physical.  I guess I think of life as "despite..." rather than "thanks to...." 

The initiative to "Flip the Script" that some adoptees are urging on Facebook has got me thinking more about adoption from the adoptee's point of view.  I've always tried to do this with my adopted son, though I now realize with how little success.  I no more understand what it's like to be adopted than I can imagine crouching behind a bomb-blasted wall.  In the presence of those who do  know those things, the rest of us should probably maintain a respectful silence, but a sense of shared humanity leads me to try.

Something that many adoptees have commented upon is the difficulty of truly fitting in with either the adoptive family or the biological one after reunion.  It makes me think of Sandra Bullock drifting off into space in that movie, no longer tethered to earth but an alien in the hostile environment of the vast unknown.  When I was very young, I was invited to spend the night with a friend I didn't know all that well.  Our parents were friends, and I suppose that's what led to the invitation.  I remember having dinner at their house, then going to bed in a strange bedroom and longing to be back in my own house, in my own bed, with my own parents in the next room.  What if I'd had to stay in that strange house indefinitely?  What if I'd never seen my parents again?  My friend's parents were kind to me, but I felt no connection to them whatsoever.  Is that how an adoptee feels, amplified a hundred or a thousand times? 

As a "birth" mother in reunion with my first son, and as the adoptive mother of another son, I am trying to see the world from their perspectives.  I know that being a "birth" mother is like being an emotional amputee.  A part of my very self was missing for over 40 years.  I didn't feel like an alien in my own life, but I did feel I was breathing with one lung.  Did my sons look around them, searching for something that was undeniably their own and never finding it?  I've had jobs that twisted me into someone I didn't want to be, and I remember feeling I was in the wrong place where nothing fit.  I worked in offices that enclosed my spirit like a straight-jacket, and I taught in schools that felt populated by hostile forces that I had to control by being a very different person from what I normally am.  Until I settled into  teaching at a congenial university, I never felt I fit in anywhere.  Most people undoubtedly share those feelings at one time or another, but not fitting in at work and not fitting into your family are not comparable.  As Robert Frost wrote, "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."  But "home" for an adoptee is always provisional.  Ties of blood are indissoluble, no matter how disrupted the relationship might be.  But adoption is a contract, and everyone knows deep down that contracts can be broken.  Love is not enough to ensure permanence, as any divorced person can attest.

Is it possible for a family to reconstitute itself, for a mother and child long separated to reconstruct Home?  I want to believe it is, but I know now how difficult that will be.  Beginning a mother-child relationship when the child is an adult is rather like building the second floor of a house first.  Until the substructure is strong enough, you have to keep it aloft by sheer will, a will comprised not of bricks and beams but of love.  Somehow I believe love will prove sufficient to the task, that despite lacking blueprints, the new structure will endure.